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Genetic Engineering in Medicine


Jonathan Winn

by Jonathan Winn

Genetic engineering and gene therapy are an essential part in today’s medicine. They have led to the discovery of many new treatments for “untreatable” diseases. They have provided cost efficient solutions that require much less procedure and can be permanent rather than temporary. The solutions are also more effective then before and through the use of transgenic plants and animals, can be easily produced. Gene knowledge has sparked interest and continues to supply discoveries of new applications for this research everyday.

The ability to study and manipulate genes is a process that has become extremely helpful in recent years. Genetics is playing an increasingly important role in the diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment of diseases. (www.ornl.gov 2000) Such projects as the Human Genome Project have become areas of interest because the concepts are new and the applications for this research are almost endless. The Human Genome Project is helping to identify and study each individual gene on the human DNA strand. Scientists now have the ability to pinpoint errors in genes, which will eventually allow inherited diseases such as down syndrome to be completely eradicated. A process known as gene therapy can be used upon infants to fix broken or problematic genes. Gene therapy is accomplished by replacing these genes with normal genes, so the baby will develop normally.

New techniques are being developed all the time. A fairly new process involves synthesizing a therapeutic gene and then inserting it into a viral vector. This viral vector can be either cultured along with blood cells of the patient, or inserted directly into the patient. Both these procedures result in the patient’s cells being altered to repair the problem gene. Companies such as Chiron, Transgene, Vical, Cell Genesys, and Penn State University are main research facilities in gene therapy and currently are running trials on humans. (Popular Science “Mending Broken Genes”) It is crucial to understand the importance of this research. These findings could cause dreams of cures for cancer become realities. Already scientists can accelerate the healing process by introducing a disc containing DNA that promotes wound healing into an area of damaged tissue. This is actually one of the most successful methods of gene therapy because the cells are exposed to the DNA in the disk for an extended period of time. Other than directly entering the gene into human DNA, there are ways of benefiting from gene therapy.

Once these genes have been developed, there are usually ways to easily mass-produce the gene or to make use of it. There are millions of people who benefit from genetic engineering every day. Transgenic animals are one way of producing vital human proteins. One example is the way cows are used to produce alpha-1-antitrypsin, which is used to treat emphysema. The gene that produces alpha-1-antitrypsin is linked to the mammary genes of the cows, which results in the production of the protein in the milk. The protein can then be removed from the milk and used for medicine. This procedure also works for the proteins that aid in the treatment of bacterial infections, and also for tPA, a blood clot dissolving enzyme used in hospitals. Currently there are over 250 gene therapy experiments; half involve cancer and many involve HIV. (NIH) Because this is such a hot area to research in the lab, many people wonder how it compares to traditional medicine

Genetic engineering has and will continue to supply much better treatment answers than traditional medicine. Gene therapy results in little or no side effects. Even today’s drugs can hardly ever promise that. Also, the researching process of finding treatments is now much more simplified. With the newfound knowledge of genes, repairing defects requires much less trial and error. Once the specific gene is located, a replacement is found and usually the problem is fixed. Medicines require much FDA testing and approval and can take twice as long to develop and patent. (FDA 1999)

The price tag for these miracle treatments will surprisingly be much smaller than expected. The reason for this is that as the science progresses, therapy treatments will be around once every decade. Drug companies supply the main funds for gene therapy because obviously they will be the ones to profit from discoveries. Common diseases would be the most profitable, but if they are only treated once every ten years the market may not support these drug companies. People who take routine injections of certain enzymes will soon be able to merely take a pill, which activates a gene that produces the required enzyme. (Popular Science “Mending Broken Genes”) It is treatments like these that are expected to be so inexpensive that companies are concerned about their success.

Genetic engineering is a very important part of modern day science. It has also had a great impact on the field of medicine and health. The use of genetics has opened many doors and allowed for procedures that were never possible before. Engineering these genes is a process that takes some time to research, but in general the items developed are cost efficient and can be afforded by the population. These products are more effective solutions for the problems they are invented for than previous science would allow. Genetic engineering is more than a useful tool in medicine; it is a necessity.

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